Monthly Archives: January 2022

Using Reflection to Help Find Certainty in an Uncertain Time

As we begin the spring 2022 semester, we are met with yet another uncertain path ahead. Will I have to teach remotely? Will I be able to teach in person? Will I have the option? What will be the option for students? Will all of this change in a few weeks? How are the students going to handle another stressful semester? The list goes on. I certainly do not have the answers to any of the aforementioned questions, but the recent (and not so recent) uncertainty has prompted me to spend time reflecting on my courses and teaching practices.

But, before I dive into that, here’s a bit on my background to help with the context of this reflective exercise. First, I am relatively new to the teaching profession, and I started my first tenure track position in the fall of 2017, after an exhilarating and challenging visiting position the year before (2016-2017). As a visiting professor I found my calling as an educator and mentor, and while I was working more than I ever thought possible, I loved every minute of it. As you may remember from your first few years of teaching, these first years are filled with exponential growth as an instructor, faculty member, and person. I was developing new courses almost every semester and/or making significant changes to previously used courses. I worked with colleagues at my institution and others, soliciting feedback on how I could improve assessments, student engagement, and advising. Needless to say, very little was the same semester to semester – lots of editing and revising. And right as I’m starting to get the swing of things, mid-way through year 3, BAM – COVID! As a relative newcomer to the classroom, when COVID hit in the spring of 2020, I had a mere 3.5 years of teaching in the pre-COVID era and very little consistency in my coursework (or so I thought). And since then, every semester since the start of COVID has been different in terms of course delivery, assessments, and student engagement. Some courses have been fully remote, some hybrid, some in person, some switched back and forth with student options also constantly changing. It’s exhausting to think about.

As a result of all of this inconsistency, when I started planning for yet another uncertain semester (spring 2022) I decided to spend some time thinking about what has been consistent in my courses throughout the years (both before and after COVID). To obtain additional data, I also reviewed those dreaded course evaluations in order to review feedback that wasn’t from my own biased brain. While somewhat scary, this reflective activity allowed me to sort out a few things that paint a clear picture of “my classroom” regardless of the delivery method or state of the world:

 

  • ORGANIZED – If you were to run a word cloud on all of my course evals the largest word would most likely be “organized” or some iteration of that. And for those that know me, this probably isn’t a huge surprise. I am organized, perhaps a bit over-organized, and this is very clear in my course design. Students take this as a positive – I know, or at least look like I know, exactly where this course is headed, and they trust me to lead them on this journey.

 

  • OVER-COMMUNICATION – The second largest word on the world cloud would be “communication”, and possibly to the point of over-communication. While not every student requires reminders of assignments or expectations, some do. Different modes of communication are helpful too: in person, e-mail, LMS, video chat, etc. Students seem to need more communication during the COVID semesters than in previous ones and I’ve found that my ability to “over-communicate” helps students stay on track and always know the expectations. Plus, I’m hoping that my practice of over-communication helps students feel more comfortable reaching out to me when they need help.

 

  • ACTIVE – From the beginning I did not want my classroom to be one of those that students just passively attended. I wanted them to be excited to come to class at 8:00 am because they knew that they were going to be put to work and be engaged in their learning. This is absolutely a hard sell, especially at 8:00 am, and it takes time for some students to warm up to the idea, while a few never do (and they note that very clearly in the evals). However, for the majority of students, the active classroom is a welcoming and fun learning environment (these comments are more pleasant to read in the evals). Plus, it’s just more fun to teach!

 

  • FLEXIBLE – While flexibility has been of utmost importance during COVID, I noticed that I also had a bit of flexibility in my pre-COVID classroom as well. Flexibility with learning speeds and styles, flexibility with my own content deadlines, flexibility with student requests, and even homework or project deadlines (to an extent). This was absolutely something that I had to work on early on in my teaching career, but I learned a lot from listening to my students and their needs in the classroom and they appreciate my ability to work with them as they struggle.

 

  • CHALLENGING and SUPPORTIVE – Students note that my courses are challenging, but feasible. Yes, I have high expectations, of which they are aware (see above), but they also know I’m here to help them and work with them when they are struggling (with the course or otherwise). The connections we can develop with students are unlike any other, and I love seeing them grow throughout their educational journey.

 

  • EXCITING – Students commented on my ability to be “excited” about anatomy and physiology. (Who isn’t?!?!) I don’t know if this is just because I have more energy than they do at 8:00 am, but I’ll take it. A&P is EXCITING and apparently that is clear both in person and on camera. Also, apparently, I appear taller on camera.

Now, while things are still a bit crazy and uncertain, I encourage you to reflect on your own teaching practices both before and during COVID to uncover some commonalities in your classroom.  We will probably never go back to exactly the way things were pre-COVID, so stopping and reflecting may be a great exercise to help move forward. Spend some time noting what is similar and maybe even what is different. Particularly if you are new to this profession, such as I am, this activity may help you learn a bit more about your teaching style and classroom practices. Then share your revelations with others and encourage them to do the same, perhaps even in the comments section below.

Postscript: Total coincidence that this is similar to the January 13th blog topic, which is also a great reflective exercise. Looks like we are on similar paths. Happy reflecting!

Jennifer Ann Stokes is an Assistant Professor of Kinesiology at Southwestern University in Georgetown, TX. Jennifer received her PhD in Biomedical Sciences from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Jennifer’s courses include Human Anatomy and Physiology (I and II), Nutritional Physiology, Intro to Human Anatomy and Physiology, Medical Terminology, and Psychopharmacology. Jennifer is also actively engaged with undergraduates in basic science research (www.stokeslab.com) and in her free time enjoys trail running, cycling, hiking, and baking cookies and cakes for her colleagues and students.
Looking back and moving forward. The importance of reflective assessment in physiology education.

At the end of the 1986 movie Platoon, the protagonist (Chris Taylor, played by Charlie Sheen) provides a very moving monologue that starts “I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves. The enemy was in us. The war is over for me now, but it will always be there, the rest of my days.”

When Platoon was first released in theaters I was in high school.  I was enthralled with Platoon, and it has held a very special place in my memories ever since.  The ending monologue has echoed through my mind at the end of almost every semester that I have been a faculty member (albeit with a few changes. No insult or mocking of the movie is intended, this is simply my effort to take a powerful cinematic scene and apply it to my personal situation).  My end of semester monologue goes something like this “I think now, looking, back, I did not teach the students but I taught myself. The student was within me.  The semester is over for me now, but it will always be there, the rest of my days.”  And with that, I begin reflective assessment of my teaching.

For many educators, assessment is a dirty word and a necessary evil.  Hall and Hord (1) reported that faulty experience anxiety about assessment because of a lack of understanding of the process or importance of assessment.  Faculty may also disdain participating in assessment due to concerns about accountability, or due to concerns about accreditation negatively impacting their careers (2). Often, faculty also view assessment reports as things that need to be prepared and submitted to meet requirements imposed on faculty from an administrative office within their institution, or some outside accrediting agency, but think that assessment reports are not really pertinent to the day-to-day work of education (3).  To help overcome hesitancy to fully engage in the assessment process Bahous and Nabhani (4) recommend that institutions hire a full-time assessment officer to work one-on-one with faculty.  All of these are relevant to the formal process of assessment and submitting data and reports to meet institutional or organizational requirements.  When done the right way, these assessment reports can be valuable tools in education.  But what I want to discuss in this blog post is a more informal form of assessment that I think all educators should do, and probably already do, which is reflective assessment.

Students and faculty alike perceive Physiology as a very challenging academic subject (5, 6).  The concepts are difficult, and there is a lot of terminology.  Our understanding of physiology is continually expanding, but yet students often still need to have a firm concept of the basic fundamentals before moving on to more complex and in-depth information.  Physiology is often taught in a system by system approach, yet the systems do not operate independently of one another so at times it may feel like the cart is put before the horse in regards to helping students to understand physiological processes. All of these issues with the difficulty of teaching physiology make reflective assessment an important part of teaching.

Quite simply, no matter how well we taught a class or a concept, as educators we may be able to teach better the next time (7, 8).  Perhaps we can tweak an assignment to make it better fit our needs.  Or perhaps we can provide a new resource to our students, like an appropriate instructional video or a scholarly article. Or maybe it’s time to select a new textbook.  Or maybe we have seen something in Advances in Physiology Education or on the PECOP Blog that we would like to incorporate into our teaching practice.  Whatever the reason, reflective assessment provides an opportunity for us to ask ourselves two very simple, but very important questions about our teaching:

  1. What went well in this class, and what didn’t go as well as planned?
  2. What improvements are we willing to make to this course to improve student learning?

The first question is important for identifying strengths and weaknesses in our courses.  We can ponder what went well, and ask why it went well.  Has it gone well each semester? Or did it go well because of changes we made in our teaching?  Or did it go well because of other changes, such as a change in prerequisite courses?

As we ponder what didn’t go as planned, we can also contemplate why things didn’t go as planned.  I think anyone who has taught through the COVID pandemic can identify lots of unforeseen and unusual disruptions to our courses.  But we can also use reflective assessment to identify ongoing problems that deserve some attention.  Or we can identify problems that have previously not been problems, and make a note to monitor these issues in future courses.

The second question, about what changes are we willing to make, is also extremely important.  Sometimes a problem may be outside of our control such as course scheduling, who teaches the prerequisite course, or other issues.  But if the identified problem is something we can control, such as the timing of the exams, or the exam format, or laboratory exercises, then we need to decide if the problem arises from something we are willing to change and then decide how and what to change.  Can the problem be addressed through the acquisition of new instrumentation?  Can the problem be addressed by changing textbooks?  Some of the problems may be easy to solve, while others might be more difficult.  Some problems might require funding, and so funding sources will need to be identified.  But this is where reflective assessment can really help us to prioritize changes to our teaching.

I ask myself these questions throughout the semester as I grade tests and assignments, but in the midst of a semester there is often not time to really ponder and make changes to my classes.  During the semester I keep a teaching diary to make note of the thoughts that come to me throughout the semester. Then, after final grades are submitted and before the next semester begins there is more time to read through the teaching diary and to reflect and ponder about my teaching.  Often, in this less pressured time between semesters, by reviewing my teaching diary I can take a step back to reflect on problems during the semester and determine if this has been an ongoing issue in my classes or an isolated issue limited to only this one semester.  I often find that what seemed like a problem in the middle of the semester has resolved itself by the end of the semester.

Of course there are many other questions that can be asked as part of reflective assessment (7, 8), and any question can lead to numerous follow up questions.  But I think these two questions (1. What went well in this class, and what didn’t go as well as planned? 2.  What improvements are we willing to make to this course to improve student learning?) form the cornerstone of reflective assessment.  And reflective assessment can then lead to a career long endeavor to engage in action research to improve our teaching skills.

  1. Hall G, Hord S. Implementing change: Patterns, principles, and potholes (5th ed). New York: Pearson, 2019.
  2. Haviland D, Turley S, Shin SH. Changes over time in faculty attitudes, confidence, and understanding as related to program assessment. Iss Teacher Educ. 2: 69-84, 2011.
  3. Welsh JF, Metcalf J. Faculty and administrative support for institutional effectiveness activities. J Higher Educ. 74: 445-68, 2003.
  4. Bahous R, Nabhani M. Faculty Views on Developing and Assessing Learning Outcomes at the Tertiary Level. J General Educ. 64: 294-309, 2015.
  5. Slominski T, Grindberg S, Momsen J. Physiology is hard: a replication study of students’ perceived learning difficulties. Adv Physiol Educ. 43:121-127, 2019.
  6. Colthorpe KL, Abe H, Ainscough L. How do students deal with difficult physiological knowledge? Adv Physiol Educ. 42:555-564, 2018.
  7. Pennington SE. Inquiry into Teaching: Using Reflective Teaching to Improve My Practice. Networks, An Online Journal for Teacher Research 17, 2015. https://doi.org/10.4148/2470-6353.1036
  8. Reflective Teaching Practices. Int J Instruc. 10: 165-184, 2017. NM, Artini LP, Padmadewi NN. Incorporating Self and Peer Assessment in Reflective Teaching Practices. Int J Instruc. 10: 165-184, 2017.
    Dr. Greg Brown is a Professor of Exercise Science in the Department of Kinesiology and Sport Sciences at the University of Nebraska at Kearney where he has been a faculty member since 2004. He is also the Director of the General Studies program at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Physical Education (pre-Physical Therapy emphasis) from Utah State University in 1997, a Master of Science in Exercise and Sport Science (Exercise Physiology Emphasis) from Iowa State University in 1999, and a Doctorate of Philosophy in Health and Human Performance (Biological Basis of Health & Human Performance emphasis) from Iowa State University in 2002. He is a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine and